Social justice activist and former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has called upon Hollywood to fix its preference for “Asain stereotypes,” from the submissive servant to the math wiz.
In an article for The Hollywood Reporter (THR), Abdul-Jabbar recalled his time studying martial arts under Bruce Lee and how the legend “spoke often and passionately about the harmful way Asian Americans were portrayed on television shows and in movies.”
“How having characters like Hop Sing (Bonanza) and Hey Boy (Have Gun Will Travel) shuffling about happily serving their white bosses gave the impression that Asian males were grateful, sexless servants,” he wrote. “Asian women were generally beautiful, demure, sexy servants in need of protection from the gun-toting white males. Bruce did his best to destroy those stereotypes by becoming the virile action hero in Hong Kong movies that Hollywood wouldn’t let him be.”
“Flash forward 55 years and, with a few notable exceptions, the demeaning stereotypes remain and have born bitter fruit: The recent mass murder of Asian Americans in Atlanta is only one of the thousands of racially motivated incidents against the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community in the past year,” he continued. “Fueled by moronic politicians’ references to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus” or ‘Kung flu,’ hate crimes against Asian Americans increased in 2020 by 150 percent and, as daily attacks around the country show, it’s only getting worse. Sadly, the most disturbing part isn’t the increase in violence, it’s how little it takes to trigger that violence — as if attackers are just waiting for an excuse to express their ignorance.”
Abdul-Jabbar said that some misperceptions about Asians could be solved if only Hollywood would put out more nuanced Asian characters. He also calls for the removal of any and all past stories that featured harmful racial stereotypes.
“The most egregious ones should be pulled from circulation, and those that have some historical value should come with a warning in the beginning that the content features harmful racial stereotypes, as has been done for films like Gone With the Wind that perpetuated dangerous Black stereotypes,” he wrote.
“The real issue here isn’t just adding more Asian American characters, it’s about the kind of characters portrayed,” he continued. “Two important areas that are deliberately overlooked by Hollywood are Asian Americans as romantic leads and as heroic leads. Few series dare to have an Asian American man as the object of romantic desire, especially by a white woman (are you listening, Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise?). Fewer have Asian American women as leads prized for their intelligence and outspoken strength rather than their svelte figure and flirty smile.”
Abdul-Jabbar cited three shows that he feels treat Asian Americans well: the Cinemax series “Warrior,” “Killing Eve” starring Sandra Oh, and the new Netflix series “The Irregulars.”
“In general, portrayals of Asian Americans are often comic-relief sidekicks (House, Prodigal Son), monosyllabic martial arts masters (Wu Assassins), homework-loving nerds, or wizened oldsters with fortune cookie advice,” he concluded. “We need a commitment to produce more varied portrayals of Asian Americans, but also that more of their stories to be told by Asian Americans working behind the cameras, including writers and directors. The problem is when the industry produces a Minari or The Farewell or Killing Eve, it likes to sit back and relax while congratulating itself.”
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